APS Ethics Panel Declines to Sanction Mr. English 4-3


(APN) ATLANTA — The Ethics Commission of the Atlanta Public School Board voted 4-3 against a final determination that APS Board of Education Member Courtney English failed to communicate honestly and openly with stakeholders, during a six hour hearing that began at 7pm, Wednesday, March 30, 2011, and did not end until almost 1am.

The three voting no, or that, in other words, there was a violation, were Julia Neighbors, Charmaine Ward, and Karen Woodward.

Five votes that there was a violation would have been required to issue a finding that a violation had occurred.

These are the same three members who voted to open the investigation in the first place.

Previously, the Commission had also found there was sufficient evidence to warrant a hearing.

At issue was whether English deceived citizens in a July 2010 press release where he said that he only misused the credit card one time and that he did not understand the rules governing the credit card.

Essentially, English, through his attorney, school privatization advocate Glenn Delk, argued that he believed that the APS credit card could be used a free, revolving personal payday loan for Mr. English and his family.

Howard Grant of APS testified that he warned Mr. English that he had discovered charges that were not allowable, and for which the school system needed to be reimbursed.  After that, English had proceeded to charge more personal items on the card.

English argued that he did not understand not allowable meant not allowable at all; that he thought they were allowable if he reimbursed the school system every time.

According to former APS parent Kim Kahwach–an advocate for public schools who pulled her children out of APS out of accreditation concerns–English charged personal items on the APS credit card over forty times.

Delk also argued that the APS contract for the credit card had a provision involving reimbursement: “I agree that should I violate the terms of this agreement or associated Policies and Procedures  established in the instructions associated with the Travel Card and use the Atlanta Public School’s Travel Card for personal use or gain that I will reimburse the Atlanta Public Schools for all incurred charges and fees (including attorneys’ fees and  expenses) related to the collection of these charges and authorize APS to withhold these funds from my wages, if necessary.”

Apparently, four members of the Ethics Commission were convinced that the requirement to reimburse APS for disallowed charges constituted permission to “violate the terms of this agreement.”  And that therefore, English was not dishonest when he said he did not understand the rules.

Prior to the hearing, APS determined that the Charter gave them the flexibility to hire, appoint, and pay for a private attorney for the complainant, Kahwach.

However, the presence of the attorney may have been helpful in some ways, but harmful in others, especially when the attorney, James Dearing, had only called Kahwach and witnesses in the case the day before, and had little time to learn about or analyze the case.

“The attorney lost the case for the complainant,” Joe Beasley, civil rights activist and friend of Mr. English, told Atlanta Progressive News.

The independent hearing officer in the case told Kahwach that she could not address the Commission; only Dearing could.

It also was not clear whether Dearing’s role was to present the facts of the case in an orderly manner, or to make a legal argument for Kahwach as to how the facts showed dishonesty on the part of English.  This was something that Delk questioned.

In any event, it appears Dearing neglected to make the most fundamental arguments in the case–that is, why the email was deceptive–and also did not call APN’s News Editor, the present writer, as a witness, despite the present writer having been a witness in the investigation.  [Editor’s note: I would have been able to explain, as I did during the investigation, why it was dishonest if called.]

Delk tried to argue that the dishonesty case was double jeopardy for Mr. English when he was already found guilty in a case involving the misuse of the APS credit card.  Delk argued that APS General Counsel asked the Commission to look into any and all violations.

However, the Commission voted, now for the second time, that it was not double jeopardy.  They had previously decided the same, implicitly, when voting to open the investigation in the first place.

At one point, Mr. Delk misled the public and the Commission, according to several individuals who were present, when he said he had five witnesses waiting in the hallway.  There were no witnesses waiting in the hallway, other than the present writer and, at one point, Mr. Grant.

All four of English’s Board colleagues in the Gang of Five–Khaatim El, Yolanda Johnson, Nancy Meister, and Brenda Muhammad–appeared at the hearing, presumably in support of English.

However, none of the four members of the Board minority were present at the hearing.

About thirty community members attending the ethics hearing, including APS parent Janet Kishbaugh, who has four pending complaints, against El, Johnson, English, and Meister.  These complaints involve, among other related allegations, Board Members’ acceptance of pro bono PR services from Alisias group while considering Alisias for a PR contract with APS.

Being able to observe the ethics hearing for English, where otherwise there is no formal process documented for citizens to review, will help Kishbaugh prepare for her upcoming hearings.

Because Kishbaugh is an attorney, she will unlikely require the services of an APS-appointed attorney.

The Commission has already voted to hold a hearing for Mr. El in April 2011.  Because the complaints involving Johnson, English, and Meister involve almost the same allegations, it is likely they too will go to the hearing phase.

Kahwach released the following statement to APN after the hearing:

“An important question was asked of me during the hearing, ‘Why did you file the Ethics Complaint?’ and my response was simply, ‘We all deserve and have a right to the Honest Services of our elected officials,'” Kahwach said.

“The major concern I have, while not wanting to trivialize the misuse of the credit card, is the  overwhelming PR that explained Mr. English’s actions through community e-mail distribution lists,  newspaper outlets, and Atlanta Progressive News,” Kahwach wrote.

“Mr English’s statement explains, in essence, a one time event that was repaid. As a citizen, I, like many others, believed the ‘one time event’ until reading the SACS report which noted two occasions, not one.  Once I received open records information that shows 40 times that Mr. English misused the credit card, I felt we had all been hoodwinked,” Kahwach wrote.

“Sometimes the omission of information keeps citizens from acting and in this case, I think many citizens would have had a different perception if all facts were disclosed in the public outreach statements by Mr. English.  One thing is clear, the leaders of our APS must lead by example and we must hold them accountable when they don’t,” she wrote.

“We can no longer except [sic] almost honest leaders for our children to look up to when plainly there is an absence of consequences for bad behavior of these leaders. As to Mr. English’s attempt to explain this hearing away as ‘being politically motivated’ is more evidence that Mr. English is out of touch with the seriousness of his job and the expectations that accompany it,” Kahwach wrote.

Meanwhile, English, in an interview with a television news reporter, accused Kahwach’s complaint being politically motivated; later Kahwach threatened English with a slander suit for making the statement.

(END / 2011)

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